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Apps that plant trees are booming. But are they helping?

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can now plant trees without ever getting your hands dirty. You can plant trees — real ones, in the real world — when playing a video game on a PlayStation. You can plant trees when playing a game on your phone. Heck, you can even plant trees as a reward for not using your phone.

You can plant trees by using a search engine, or by telling Alexa “grow a tree.” With some mental math, you can arguably plant a tree through your support of certain companies: Dell Technologies supports tree-planting efforts, and so does Verizon. In January 2022, Samsung pledged to support the “growth and conservation” of 2 million trees in Madagascar by the end of March.

Tree planting is having a moment, with technology and innovation companies playing a major role. These efforts are part of an overall boom: A 2021 assessment of tropical and subtropical tree-planting efforts found a 288% increase in tree-planting organizations and a dazzling 4,700% increase in reported trees in the past 30 years.

This boom makes sense. Scientists estimate 46% of Earth’s trees have been destroyed since the onset of human civilization and forests are critical for people and the planet. Millions of new trees sounds like a fabulous way to stick it to climate change and heal the Earth.

But scientists warn that tree planting is not a simple solution. Despite the many benefits of forests, experts say tech’s current tree-planting trend could potentially do more harm than good if dangerous pitfalls aren’t avoided and companies use tree planting as a way to avoid serious commitments to more consequential actions, like reducing fossil fuel use.

So why invest in trees? Forests capture and store carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping greenhouse gas that drives climate change. They enhance biodiversity essential for healthy ecosystems and also support livelihoods. Restoring forests has emerged as a critical step worth taking, with major players leading the way. Some of these initiatives include the World Economic Forum’s One Trillion Tree initiative, the United Nations. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, and Bonn Challenge.

The pitfalls of planting

However, critiques have emerged amid this push, with scientists warning that while tree planting can do great good, it can also cause harm if not executed correctly. Bad planning can result in several side effects, including but not limited to dead trees, social conflicts, decreased biodiversity, and damaged landscapes.

“Frankly, there’s more examples of failed projects than there are successful projects,” says Karen Holl, an expert in restoration ecology and a professor at the University of California Santa Cruz. “There’s more demand than supply of good reforestation programs.”

Beyond the risk of poorly executed projects wasting legitimate opportunities linked to reforestation is the threat of greenwashing. While many reforestation organizations consider corporate sponsors essential for having the money to do their work, so-called “green marketing” can distract consumers from holding companies accountable for more effective climate solutions, like reducing fossil fuel emissions.

Alongside these current tensions is an opportunity for the work to be done right, for companies to invest in organizations that execute best practices supported by scientists. These include engaging community members who live where trees may be planted and critically evaluating what an environment needs — both when it comes to what types of trees are planted or whether tree planting is really the best way to restore the environment. There’s also a fundamental need to commit to monitoring planted trees and supporting their survival. This is why Holl prefers “tree growing” to “tree planting.”

“I think we need more pressure from all sides,” says Meredith Martin, a North Carolina State University associate professor and co-author of the 2021 assessment on tree planting.

“The sense I get is that donors are much more interested in being able to say ‘we planted a million trees’ even though it might be more effective to say ‘we planted 300,000 trees, and those trees are going to be monitored for 10 years to make sure that they are actually growing, surviving, and sequestering carbon,” she adds.

The green standard

Tech companies investing in tree planting are largely split into two groups: Those who are putting corporate social responsibility dollars into trees and those with reforestation baked directly into their business models. In most cases, specialized tree planting organizations are the ones who facilitate the actual planting of trees on behalf of the companies who have invested money into those projects.

And despite critiques, there are indeed companies and tree-planting organizations that adhere to best practices.

For example, Ecosia — a search engine that plants a tree for every query entered by users — is a B Lab-certified “social business” that funds tree-planting efforts executed by nonprofits through the ad revenue it makes via its search engine. The B Lab certification means it meets the requirements for social sustainability and environmental performance standards. It also frequently partners with other companies also wishing to support its projects. Earlier in April, it announced a partnership with Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go.

The problem is that companies like Ecosia are the exception. Most of the organizations that promise to plant trees for consumers typically aren’t as thorough, science-conscious, or responsibly managed.

In a 2021 study, Ecosia was one of just two initiatives found to support three forest landscape restoration types: Planting trees in regenerative agroforestry systems (incorporating trees that produce food and income for people), planting trees to support ecological restoration, and assisting with natural regeneration — a cost-effective process that Holl and Martin both say can serve certain environments better than planting trees. The company’s financial reports are online, and it supports the monitoring of planted trees for at least three years through a combination of remote sensing, satellite tech, geotagged evidence, and field visits.

One Tree Planted is a nonprofit that supports multiple reforestation projects and is in part funded by corporate donors like Amazon and Ecoplay. Ross Bernet, who works at One Tree Planted as a forestry specialist, says the group has a checklist to avoid potential pitfalls. They do not work on large-scale projects that focus on a single tree species, they only use indigenous species (save for when they are working on agroforestry projects), they work with local ecologists and restoration specialists, and they make sure there is community buy-in. One Tree Planted requires three years of on-the-ground monitoring, and further funding supports satellite and drone monitoring.

Ideally, he says, they’d work on 10-year projects — in some areas, Bernet explains, it can take hundreds of years for a forest to return to its natural state. When they can renew partnerships, they can extend how long they monitor.

Dougal Waters

“When it comes to monitoring, it’s a priority for us, but there’s still room for improvement because there’s new technologies which can help and there’s different ecosystems that require different approaches,” Bernet says. “We want to stay in front of the curve.”

Bernet also welcomes the current discourse surrounding tree planting despite genuine belief in his work.

“I think we should, as a tree-planting restoration community, be very mindful, cognizant, and self-critical because it is extremely important that we do this the right way,” he says.

The root of the problem

Unfortunately, standardization of “the right way” to plant trees is difficult to implement and verify. In her paper, Martin and colleagues write that the controversy surrounding tree planting as a solution is, for the most part, “theoretical because we lack detailed information of how tree planting is proceeding on the ground.” In their examination of 174 tree-planting organizations, just 18% mentioned monitoring at all, and 5% measured the survival rate of plantings.

When it comes to accountability, Martin describes the tree-planting landscape as a “wild west.” She theorizes this is partly because of the pressure to plant as many trees as possible, as quickly as possible. This pressure stems from tree-planting metrics supported by projects like the Trillion Tree Campaign and companies wanting to satisfy a promise to consumers.

“We’re feeling a lot of panic right now about climate change and deforestation, and I think there’s an understandable urge to do something now and something fast,” Martin says. “In many ways, I think that is true. But I also think it would be beneficial to slow down a bit on some of these projects and make sure we’re not just doing them fast, but we’re doing them well.”

There is effort outside of tree-planting organizations to increase tree-planting accountability and transparency. Veritree is a platform that uses blockchain technology to monitor, manage, and verify progress made by restoration projects. It can be used via an app: Veritree co-founder and CEO Derrick Emsley says that through a recent partnership with Samsung on a project in Madagascar, Samsung Galaxies were deployed into the field for data collection. (Samsung did not respond to Digital Trends when asked if it hit its goal of planting 2 million trees.)

Emsley and his brother, Stephen, also a co-founder of Veritree, have a history in the tree-planting space with their other business, Tentree, a clothing company that promises 10 trees planted for every purchase. Through this work, they observed a need for better data-collection systems and a way to prove to “the planting companies say is happening, is really happening,” Derrick says. He argues that most organizations don’t have the necessary technological expertise or infrastructure.

“We’ve been investing in restoration for over a decade now,” Derrick says. “We’ve seen a number of problems as a funder of these projects. One is double-counting. There’s sort of a running joke in tree planting that the same tree got sold 100 million times. Being able to say that’s not the case is really challenging to do.”

Meanwhile, Holl is starting a project that will rigorously evaluate how well tree-planting organizations are doing at executing best practices.

“To me, the questions are: Who is paying for the monitoring? What accountability is there? How far in the future are we looking?” Holl says.

“One of the things we’ve been looking at in this evaluation of protocols shared on websites is whether anybody has targets beyond how many trees are put in the ground,” she adds. “Most organizations are very focused on trees purchased and planted. There are very few organizations that are looking longer-term.” 

Seeing the forest for the trees

Ennia Bosshard is a conversation ecologist and Ph.D. student at the University of Exeter. She recently co-authored a review of the market drivers of reforestation projects. Over the past few years, she’s come across more and more slogans like “buy one, plant one,” Bosshard says. She wanted to investigate what drives companies to participate in these initiatives; if we understand these drivers, Bosshard believes we can then determine how to funnel funds toward projects that work.

Her review found that “eco-marketing initiatives” primarily focus on tree-planting efforts over other regeneration interventions seemingly because “tree planting is the easier message to communicate to consumers.” The review advocates for safeguards and governance of these projects, to ensure tree planting doesn’t overshadow other approaches that may have “more significant ecological, environmental, and social benefits.”

Meanwhile, consumers considering “buy one, plant one” initiatives need to evaluate whether their consumption could inadvertently contribute to climate change regardless of their donation, Bosshard says.

“As conscious consumers, we should keep in mind that everything we buy requires natural resources, and if the products are not sustainably produced, may contribute towards the global crises,” she says. “I believe that it should therefore be our responsibility to buy only what we really need and pay attention to how it was produced.”

When it comes to deciding what reforestation projects will do more good than harm, Lindsay Cobb encourages “individuals and brand partners to look at the organization they’re considering supporting, look for those annual reports, and see how they are spending their fundraising dollars.” Cobb is the deputy director of marketing and communications for Trees for the Future, an agroforestry-focused nonprofit that makes public its financial and monitoring reports.

And if a tech company truly wants to mitigate climate change, then it needs to take specific actions before supporting tree growth, Holl says.

First, these companies “need to be thinking about how to reduce their emissions and use more green energies,” she says. Second, protecting existing forests should always be the priority before planting trees.

Bernet agrees. “The number one thing, and first thing, companies can do to help with climate change is reduce their fossil fuel consumption and reduce their carbon footprint,” he says. “We can’t plant our way out of this climate crisis.” 

Tree planting is an effective tool and, as Martin puts it, “a very attractive solution to climate change.” It’s definitely more fun than buying or driving less. But it’s only one tool in the toolbox, with others capable of more meaningful change. Consumers can ask for it all: While individual actions are downplayed as climate solutions, purchasing power has demonstrable influence.

Supporting forests can be a good start — when it’s done right.

“In theory, this should be something everybody wants,” Martin says. “Right?”

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